Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Force Like No Other: Improvising the Tradition with Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy

(Ron Reid (left), Marla Meenakshi Joy (right)

"R eally?" I hesitated..."I'm not sure I want to do ashtanga".

"Ok but honestly just check it out. You'll love it. It's like free jazz or something!"

Free jazz?? That was an unusual thing to say...I was nursing a green tea at the Golden Turtle on Ossington St. with Gary, a Toronto filmmaker and ashtanga yogi who knew a thing or two about jazz. And it was clear he had a distinctly fierce reverence for one of Toronto's most treasured yoga instructors Ron Reid and his "yoga jam" class. Sure, I'd heard of Ron Reid's virtual Jedi status - an uncanny ability to work with the "force" of hatha yoga - for years. But I was skeptical about taking the class.

And who could blame me?? 
How could I know that the deeply musical sensibility of Ron Reid and his wife and musical collaborator, Marla Meenakshi Joy could summon a kind of ashtanga that was skillful enough to accomodate improvisations? Or that a vigorous ashtanga practice in intelligent hands could morph into something that was always intuitively subtracting from the strenuous?

(Ron Reid)
Sure enough through slim sightlines at the back of Downward Dog's upper story room on Queen Street West, I watched as accomplished musician/composer, yogi, co-owner and co-director of Downward Dog, Ron Reid unfurled a masterful series of yoga postures that made a free and adventurous approach to experimentation appear deceptively simple. And more than that, he allowed people in the room to feel like it was easy. There was a distinct air of possibility and generosity that filled the room and circled unmistakeably around the otherwise elusive and introspective Ron Reid.

That's not suprising considering Ron Reid has been practicing Yoga for over 30 years and teaching since 1988. Ron has studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Sharath both in India and North America and was one of the first Canadian teachers to be authorized by Pattabhi Jois.  In addition to regular classes at Downward Dog, he conducts workshops and teacher trainings in Canada, Europe, and the U.K.

And if that weren't enough, Ron Reid makes up only half the equation in a story of a greater partnership. Marla Meenakshi Joy first traveled to India in 1988 to study meditation and the philosophy of the Vedas with Swami Shyam, as well as other learned scholars in the Himalayas.  She is a Certified Meditation and Yoga Philosophy teacher from the International Meditation Institute in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas. She was involved in Downward Dog’s first teacher training program in 1999, as both a teacher of Philosophy and Sanskrit, and as a student.  She has over 500 hours of Teacher Training with both Ron Reid, Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, among others, and is a Yoga Alliance Certified Teacher. She currently teaches Ashtanga Yoga, Swaha Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Yogadance, Meditation, Yoga philosophy, Sanskrit, and Chanting privately and in yoga studios in Canada, the U.S. The UK, Europe and Asia. 

(Marla Meenakshi Joy)
Marla Meenakshi Joy's classes have a parallel ability attract a devoted following of students drawn to her deft and subtle practice, her extensive teaching experience as well as her instinctive, exuberant personality.  But it was when Marla closed her class with a chant so conversational and intimate that I recognized a similar cadence of fluid creativity and exploration as I had experienced in Ron's Yoga Jam.

Ron and Marla are life partners whose deep bonds were forged from a musical synergy. That unique chemistry led to the creation of Swaha, Ron and Marla's kirtan band, who just returned from a high profile performance at Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, California. And as you will see in our interview, the relationship between music and posture practice is so intimate for Ron and Marla that there may as well be no verbal distinction made. In fact, it's a curious thing that in this interview disciplinary distinctions seem to disappear. Ask Ron or Marla about music, postural practice, the cycles of life, astrology, or ayurveda and you'll get the same sense that all things are but limbs of life; all things are ashtanga ("eight limbs")... And if you learn to use your limbs well, you inevitably extend your reach back to your best self. In the following interview, Ron and Marla offer valuable insight into the history of the their own ashtanga practice, raise critical concerns about ashtanga's evolutionary blindspots, and throw the spotlight on what it means to work within a tradition whose very existence is based in innovation.

"You see people try to say "No this was the original practice intended by the yoga sutras". Well that's just absurd. I'm sorry! It never was. You know it was just a very specific practice and it's from a particular time. And I think once you know that, it's liberating. To me, it's liberating. It makes a lot of sense... And so the practice that Pattabhi Jois developed based on what he was taught by Krishnamacarya was his own practice specific to his constitution and context." (Ron Reid)
"Our joy is to be able to allow the soul to grow and feel its own levity and its own unlimited nature. And so our teaching style, hopefully, reflects that...We've seen it time and time again in those teachers that have made the choice to do traditional ashtanga, what that's created in their teaching style, their method and also their adjustments. The way in which some of those teachers touch people violates the very first yama of non-violence." (Marla Meenakshi Joy)

(Mysore class with Ron and Marla)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

And the Right Answer IS....Yoga and The Dreaded Multiple Choice Question: Mark Singleton at Yoga Festival Toronto

S o we've all received questionnaires in our lives and those of us that like our lateral thinking don't usually appreciate their bent. They're pushy, presumptuous, know-it-alls, so sometimes I don't even check off boxes. I have refused, squirmed out-of, and refused again to answer any question that limited my options.

So when I put the multiple choice question, “Is your postural yoga practice, - in your personal experience -  a) spiritual, b) religious, or c) secular?" to Mark Singleton, the author of the pivotal and influential book on modern yoga, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice at Yoga Festival Toronto, I expected no easy answer. I mean it's the kind of question anyone dreads unless they never quite got enough of multiple choice exams, or are by nature incredibly dull. So I was glad when Mark hesitated. I mean hesitation has the potential to be truly exciting. As blogger for Think Body Electric Carol Horton noted in her wonderful commemorative post on Yoga Festival Toronto, it was a great moment, and it tapped into a collective fear of the three dreaded words (religion, spirituality and secularism) as the giggles subsided and a nervous hush spread through the room...

As I remember it, in that moment things got very still. It was stunning - in the most literal sense of that word. I saw Mark's right pupil open, slow-motion, wider than widescreen. The audience could have palpated that moment like a seized muscle as I listened, leaning in even closer to grasp the precise hesitation in his tone, and savour the rationale for not being able to categorize yoga practice precisely into any one of the suggested categories.

Mark's explanation was subtle and nuanced with a careful knowledge of yoga's historical relationship with those words. And as such, his did in fact answer the question with a number of salient points which I'll get to talking about when I write up the transcript of that interview next month.

But Carol Horton did raise an interesting issue with regard to a sense that practitioners do not relate to these words in general. What does it say about us that we are aware of our inability to  communicate the nature of our yoga experience in these common categories? I'm not suggesting this difficulty is news. Dance scholarship, for instance, is rife with discussions about the challenges in communicating the experience of embodied practice with reference to these ubiquitous terms. But that is what makes any environment interesting.

And it's also why we've created new words/theories for gaps in all kinds of disciplines: somaesthetic, "the peak experience", "flow theory"...In Bharatanatyam dance terms, the ineffable experience associated with bhakti yoga (the way of devotion) has sometimes been called "svarga", a kind of blink-of-an-eye "heaven", formless and without qualities, from which we must unfortunately return.

(Mikko Kuorinki, Wall Piece of 200 letters installation)

(Simeon the monk on a pillar in Syria for 37 years)
And in not finding categories that apply, some of us turn to art...submitting even before we start that language has its limitations.

But is the inability to answer this question an indication of an ineffable experience, or a contemporary struggle with the complex, baroque weight of those words "religious", "spiritual" and "secular"? Are some of us saying that yoga practice is equivalent to the wordless experience mystics have described? Or is it this a contemporary category that has yet to find a name? And even if hatha yoga practice did not evolve via these succinct categories should we still not ask how these words are impacting practice now? What's going on with our practice today that we read about sectarian struggles in yoga classes and yet a good number of us don't feel these categories even fit?

Okay... so if you're a real mystic and you've been standing on a pillar desert-fathers-style for 40 years, then maybe you can opt out of this discussion. Because you clearly don't care about the outside world and the perception of the meaning of your practice in the world of the entangled. Fair enough, maybe your very contribution is the statement of your standing there for goddamn-ever...

(anti-Christian anti-muslim riots, India 2008)
But it is necessary for practitioners and writers to glance at those words again and again in order to understand what our current categories are, and to address them in whatever way we can so that the practice is better understood and documented. It may be a car crash, but if you want to say you were there, you gotta take a look.

And we should consider ourselves lucky that this, and most yoga discussions, are not multiple choice exams. Unlike a mutiple choice question, you can take as much time and space as you'd like in order to answer the question. You could even answer with a koan or a performance piece. And so in this case, the oversimplified question is a deliberate strategy, a reduction of possibilities by way of question, designed to create a storm in your citta "consciousness/perception" (but as ancient Indians might map it, in the physical location of your heart).

So you tell me spiritual, religious, secular....what is this yoga thing for you?

There are no categories in life that are simple. And certainly I don't think everything that exists needs a name. But when the existing categories appear so insufficient as to evade answers altogether, then it's worth asking what needs to change. And as yogis, making change, alchemical or otherwise, is our greatest trade secret.

I will be posting a full transcript of that interview at Shivers Up the Spine hopefully in a month's time. I just started my PhD this week, so needless to say, my time's been eaten with the usual back-to-school routines of buying loose leaf and making sure my new school bag is up to the task.